Food allergies are miserable. Not only can they produce debilitating, embarrassing symptoms or force you to live forever tangled in a web of food restrictions, but they can also prompt doubters and ignoramuses to brand you a neurotic hypochondriac or a celebrity-emulating sheep. Say Miley Cyrus tweets about trying gluten free, for example: Will people look at you and your gluten-free bread, thinking, If Miley extolled the virtues of bathing in botulism-enriched oxblood, would you do that too? Yeah, they probably will. It's hard out there for the intolerant.
In our age of the internet and celebrity deities, what was once a minority health issue has snowballed into a monster of a trend. Food allergies may be rising—but not as fast as this runaway train—and what with every Tom, Dick and Harry now going gluten or dairy-free, it's hard to tell what is, as the eminent gastroenterologist and chair of the Coeliac UK Health Advisory Committee, David Sanders puts it, "health or hype."
The hype side of the coin is epitomized by the Onion recently joking that 14 percent of Americans are now intolerant of the word "gluten." It is also arguably the key factor driving the meteoric rise in the 'free-from' foods sector. Gluten-free and lactose-free products once languished in the back of health food stores because they were terrible and usually tasted of melted cardboard and bile. Nowadays in supermarkets, though, sophisticated 'free-from' ranges are colonizing serious aisle space.
According to market research, the American 'free-from' sector is growing by 30 percent annually, where gluten-free was worth $10.5 billion alone just last year. In the UK, ten percent of new food brands are said to be 'free-from,' where the growth figure is 14 percent.
Full disclosure: I was skeptical about food intolerances before I started writing this article, but serious allergies such as celiac disease, where there's an immune response to the gluten protein and which can be tested for by doctors, is an unpleasant reality for one percent of the US and UK populations. There is no one blanket medical test or explanation for food intolerances, with reported symptoms flip-flopping between those similar to celiac disease (from diarrhea to nausea, un-godly wind, rashes, bloating and feeling tired). I reasoned that feeling bloated and a bit sleepy is just a symptom of life sometimes. I stand quite corrected.
If you talk to any medical professionals working in the field, there's a greater acceptance nowadays that intolerances really are a thing. "It's not going to go away," says Sanders. "It's a significant thing, but I wonder if we can work out the science behind it." Sanders tells me that although people's bodies really are angrily rejecting gluten left, right, and center, it's currently impossible to say which triggers are most common or how many people suffer from imagined food sensitivities.
Marianne Williams, a leading dietitian who treats patients with allergies and intolerances in the UK, says that in her clinic, "probably ten percent of our patients have a purely psychological basis for their condition, so it doesn't matter what we do with their diet, and it's not going to help because it's psychological."
This isn't to say that their symptoms are any less real—it's just not an issue that gluten-from foods can solve. She says symptoms are exacerbated by stress, by way of a graphic illustration: "If you've just eaten a load of prunes and you're about to get diarrhea, and if you sit an exam at the same time, chances are that the diarrhea is going to be ten times worse because you've got all the stress hormones being released. You've got a really messy floor if you don't get to the bathroom quickly."
Meanwhile, a double-blind study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology in 2012, found that two-thirds of people who think they have gluten intolerance really haven't, and that their symptoms weren't improved by a gluten-free diet. Hamish Renton, a marketing guru and leading figure in the international 'free-from' scene, has as good an idea as any of who is buying most of this food. He calls them "the worried well."
"The lifestyle for people who are avoiding gluten and wheat is almost on a par with cutting down on fat, or avoiding red meat, etc. It tends to be, broadly, if you avoid gluten you avoid a lot of carbohydrate so at certain points it doesn't become that different from an Atkins approach." There's a long and glorious history of people "thumbing their nose at common nutritional sense in order to get skinny," he adds, recalling how the Atkins diet permitted Stilton-smeared steak.
Renton says that 30 percent of UK adults have tried gluten-free diets while the US would like to cut back on their gluten. Whether weight loss is their goal or a more general quest for bright, pearlescent eyes and more energy than a stallion in breeding season, Lu Anne Williams, Innovations Director at Innova says that, "'better for you' is the number one driver of new food product development right now." And what with governments clamping down on misleading labeling, it's become trickier to make hard health claims for foods. This resulted in, she says, "a big shift to softer claims like 'natural','no artificial colors or flavors' or 'clean label' [products with short lists of simple ingredients]."
GMO-free and preservative-free are also bit-part players under the 'free-from' umbrella. "'Free-from' foods have fallen into this very wide halo of better for your foods," she adds, before pointing out that they were traditionally sold in specialist health-food outlets: "This also implies that they are healthier alternatives." She quotes market research showing that while only three percent of American and four percent of UK consumers say they are affected by gluten intolerance, 13 percent of American consumers and 10 percent of UK consumers said they think gluten free foods are healthier. Foods that never had gluten in them in the first place are even getting in on the act by advertising this virtue.
A type of consumer behavior known as vicarious goal fulfillment could also be at play here. If we see a gluten-free muffin, oozing its sugary, fatty deliciousness like something Nigella Lawson would make looking at the camera from under her heavy, butterfly-wing like eyelashes, we're more likely to permit ourselves to indulge because the gluten-free tag gives a healthy signal, even though, as Renton says, "I'd say 'free-from' foods are unhealthier [if you don't have an allergy]. The primary objective of the product is to taste as much like the original as possible, and that means you need to muck about with sugar, fat, and salt, so health concerns are a distant second."
But while Sanders, Renton, and Williams see the worried eating 'free-from' foods as harmless, personally, it makes me feel uneasy about the increasing demonizing of food going on around us. Overthinking something you can't see and don't understand lets imaginations run wild. Intelligent people I know, people who can very much eat bread without dire consequences, read diet books that plant horrific imagery in their minds, like how that nasty wheat sitting in their gut will start laying wasp's eggs. OK, I'm exaggerating, but I'm not far off.
The trouble with gluten, as Sanders points out, is that it's ubiquitous in processed foods. It's a common binding agent so is found in everything from Mars bars to drug capsules. This obsessive honing in on certain foods as quick-fix panaceas, be they goji berries or what dairy products to avoid, is wrong.
My theory is to stick to relatively unprocessed foods and you'll probably be OK. This isn't astrophysics, and nor are we at the dawn of some grand scientific research that's about to conclude that gluten is killing us all. We are well. We're just worried.